My daughter is a high school junior. We have spent recent school breaks and long weekends touring colleges. I started this project with the concept that we are fortunate to have resources. We have saved enough in a 529 plan for Kayla to go to the University of Idaho and only be responsible for incidentals. Kayla is Asian. The last couple of years she has begun feeling the pressure of being a rare exotic flower in a sea of all white. She will frequently mention to me that we are once again in a room of Caucasians. Her father and I decided we needed to kick up our savings a notch to allow Kayla to attend an out-of-state school with a more diverse student population. My husband is 70 and still working and I am 66 and retired. Increasing the college fund actually means reducing our retirement savings. I realize these are the same trade-offs most families make but they probably have fewer resources and are at least 10 to 20 years younger.
Idaho is part of the Western Undergraduate Education program (WUE) which means that at participating schools, you do not pay full out-of-state tuition rather you pay instate times .5 This assumes the student has adequate test scores and grade point average. Kayla meets all the achievement criteria. Kayla has toured Montana schools twice. They don’t offer better diversity than Idaho. Montana is, however, slightly more liberal. Montana schools’ tuition aligns with Idaho’s. We have also toured Nevada-Reno, more diverse and a brand new campus purchased by large donors, demonstrating money makes such a difference. UNR is in a price range with Idaho slightly more diverse but not as academically well-rated.
Kayla has always wanted to go to Colorado State. We attended an immersion program over President’s weekend and she was delighted. I was a little less delighted because the in-state tuition and room and board is topping out at $100,000. The WUE tuition is $125,000, significantly above our slight bump-up in tuition. As the financial aid officer was reviewing costs, one mom started crying in the back. She asked, “What if my daughter can’t meet achievement scores?” The financial aid officer suggested loans. I was satisfied we could probably make this work by increasing our savings the next 2 years and continuing to pay for Kayla’s college costs the next four years (mind you my husband will be 76 and I’ll be 72 when we get Kayla through school). I said to the financial officer as I was walking out door, “If we come up with $125,000, this will fund 4 years at CSU for my daughter?” He says, “Probably not, with inflation the cost is more likely to be $140,000.” That sum of money is about the same amount as we sold a 3 bedroom rental house in Meridian last year. It was a number that made my heart sink. We are too well off to qualify for any type of financial assistance. I don’t expect the public to be paying for my daughter to go to a state school. But I do think that public colleges are too expensive. As my husband says, our tours have made the University of Idaho look like a great value. CSU rates slightly better than U of I on academic criteria but not substantially better for almost twice the cost.
We are now taking a spring break to tour California schools. I call it our fantasy land tour. I have three girls with me including my daughter. One has a trust fund and can afford to go to any school she can get into. One is having trouble funding her meals on the trip though she has excellent grades. I am paying for everything but food. We are staying in hotels where breakfast is provided so she only needs to cover lunch and dinner. She asked to come on the trip because she has never been to California. I am sure she will probably qualify for financial aid but not enough for the high cost of California schools. Then there is my daughter. We think she should be somewhere with high academic standards and where diverse populations are welcoming and abundant (sounds like California to me). But when we looked with my son six years ago, there was a gap of $60,000 annually between the scholarship he received and the cost of the school where he wanted to go. We said we wouldn’t pay it and he ended up at Idaho. He has graduated now and we are hopeful a college education will help him land in the middle class as it did my husband and I. But I don’t know that for sure. He has yet to land a job on the west coast where he wants to go for the same reason my daughter wants to go out of state, more diversity and more liberal thinking.
What I do know is if upper class, highly educated professionals find the cost of education daunting it must be terrifying for most families. I think we need a well-educated workforce. To achieve that, college needs to be accessible to most people. That means public universities need to have a reasonable tuition for the middle class. I don’t agree with Bernie Sanders that college should be free for everyone. But I do understand why his message resonated with college students trying to make their way through school while studying, working, and carrying large loans. I think public colleges need to be affordable. If that means, my husband and I pay more taxes to make that happen so be it. We need a workforce of the future that is well-trained, creative, and not dragged down by debt.